It’s been a busy week for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band received its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the day before the new album, Unlimited Love, was released to the world on April Fool’s day. It’s the first RHCP album since 2006’s Stadium Arcadium to feature (on-again / off-again) guitarist John Frusciante. In the years since his most recent departure, Frusciante made a couple of excellent electronic music albums under the name Trickfinger that owe more to Aphex Twin’s sound than they do rap-rock.
Pitchfork gave Unlimited Love 6.2 but the Guardian was more scathing, calling this latest outing “bloated and self-indulgent”. But we’re not here to talk about the album’s artistic merits but rather its sound quality. Bassist Flea took to an Instagram video this week to champion the very same, suggesting that Unlimited Love might be for audiophiles. Holding up a vinyl copy of the new record, he says that it was mastered directly from half-inch tape and that “no computers were involved or extra compression or limiters…like they used to do”.
And looking at Flea’s backdrop – a high-end hi-fi system comprising tube-based amplifiers, a Technics turntable and loudspeakers of unknown origin – it’s clear that the man cares about sound quality. Or maybe the video clip was recorded in album producer Rick Rubin’s listening room? Rubin is a self-confessed audiophile and can often be found walking the halls of Munich High-End. No matter to whom the room belongs, if you listen to Flea’s video on a nice pair of headphones, you’ll hear its strong reverberation; and a problem that needs fixing if the hi-fi system’s sound quality is to be optimised.
RHCP aren’t exactly known for great sounding records. Stadium Arcadium sounds heavily compressed. We’re not talking about the data compression introduced by lossy streaming but the dynamic range compression applied in the studio by the mastering engineer. It’s compression that elevates the volume of the quieter sounds to that of the louder sounds to make everything the same volume: LOUD. Such a mastering technique made Stadium Arcadium‘s two discs an exhausting listen. Run through MAAT’s DROffline MKII software (introduced here) we note scores of DR5 and DR6. That’s a long way from the DR10 or DR11 that we might expect from a more dynamic-sounding record. 2004’s Californication registers DR4. Ouch.
What about the new album? Comparing a CD rip and a vinyl rip of Unlimited Love from strictly a sound quality perspective, the former sounds uptight and rigid – and touch hard – whilst the latter sounds comparatively richer and looser. That’s interesting. Running the same CD rip through the MAAT software returns DR7. That’s still not great. But the vinyl rip gives us a whopping DR13.
Why the disparity in dynamic range? It’s probable that a separate, more dynamically compressed master was used to generate the album’s digital formats. Still, these findings confirm Flea’s claim that Unlimited Love could indeed be a record for audiophiles. If only on vinyl.
Further information: Flea’s Instagram
UPDATE 17th April 2022: The 24bit/96kHz hi-res audio download of Unlimited Love scores DR7 — the same as the CD: